The good news for fans and pigeons alike is that more life-sized statues—and the scaled-down versions as well—are on the way. In the forefront of the sports statuary business is Senter Vitale Associates of Cary, N.C., which has commissioned sculptors to do bronze tributes to former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton and Aristides, the winner of the first Kentucky Derby, in addition to the sculpture of Erving.
The firm is run by Walter Council, a 29-year-old former ad man, in partnership with North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano. They describe themselves as bronze sculpture brokers. "Jim actually came up with the idea after State won the NCAA title in 1983," Council says. "He felt there should be more to commemorate such a victory than just the T-shirts, hats and other stuff that was mass-produced after State won the championship. My feeling was that some type of quality art would be appropriate, both for major sports achievements and individual athletes. With that in mind, we decided to form a company, using our mothers' maiden names for the title."
A visit by Council to Churchill Downs in Louisville in 1986 led to the company's first project. "I was struck by the absence of any major memorabilia relating to the Kentucky Derby," says Council. "So I suggested to the track's marketing director, Dave Carrico, that a statue of a Derby winner be placed at a prominent place."
Other track officials liked the idea. But there was a problem. Which Derby winner would be honored? "We finally decided that if you picked one of the all-time greats, you'd offend some people," Council says. "So we hit on the idea of erecting a statue of the first winner, in 1875, Aristides."
That proved a tough assignment for Carl Regutti, 52, an occasional horse-player who has achieved prominence as a sculptor of nature and wildlife. "There were no available photographs of Aristides and only two prints, which were not only totally different from each other but also technically wrong," says Regutti. "And many of the newspaper clippings contained terms I didn't understand. One account referred to the horse's 'neat head' and 'short cannon bones,' none of which I understood."
So Regutti decided to consult with several experts, one of whom finally came upon a photo of Clout, a racehorse from the 1970s who seemed to have characteristics similar to those of Aristides. Regutti then made a 14-inch wax model, which he passed around to his experts for approval. After making their suggested adjustments, the model became the basis for an eight-foot-high, 14-foot-long bronze statue. "I guess I know more about Aristides than anyone alive," says Regutti of the horse who won nine of 21 races and $18,325 in prize money during his four-year racing career. "He didn't have a glorious history, but he was no dog, either."
The statue, set on a granite pedestal and placed next to the paddock at Churchill Downs, was unveiled before the opening race of the fall meet last Nov. 1. Since then, almost all of the 300 bronze replicas, 16 inches high, of Aristides have been sold for $1,875 apiece, a figure derived, at least in part, from the year of that first Derby. "The replicas are good investments; some have been sold at auctions at twice the price they originally cost," says Council. "For us, Aristides definitely will be a money-maker."
So too, Council feels, will the Erving project, which also includes 300 replicas of the major work. More than half of the 15½-inch statues have already been sold, including one that will be put on display at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. "Given Dr. J's tremendous popularity, I think we'll sell out on the replicas," Council says.
The Erving statues, which depict Dr. J going up for a dunk, are the work of Louisville sculptor Barney Bright, 60, who has done statues or busts of such Kentucky luminaries as former senators John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton, current senator Wendell Ford, former governor John Y. Brown and Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, whose larger-than-life bronze bust is the first thing one sees upon entering the state capitol in Frankfort. Erving was the first sports figure sculpted by Bright. "When I measured him, I couldn't get over the size of his hands and his long arms," he says. "When he told me his shirt size was 16 by 39, I said, 'They don't make shirts that long.' But Julius said, 'My tailor does.' I had forgotten he was rich."
Bright, a sculptor for 41 years, found Erving cooperative but demanding. "He dictated exactly how he wanted the statue to look," says Bright, who started making figures out of his mother's leftover bread dough at the age of three. "Julius said he wanted a 'corporate look,' with the shorter hair that he's worn in recent years rather than the Afro he used to wear. And he also said he didn't want any chains or other jewelry. Overall, what he wanted was a dignified pose and not one of the flashy maneuvers he was famous for during his early days."